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We headed up the mountain in the moonlight, through a forest of holly oaks and walnuts, dotted with crudely carved wooden-box graves. Occasionally a life-sized weathered wooden effigy of some armoured and helmeted warrior reared out of the darkness, leaning at a crazy angle. Above us we could hear the beat of drums and the cries of dancers; from below us came the rush of a mountain torrent. The beat got louder and more driven the closer we came to the ceremonial platform at the top of the hill.
We were in the mountains of the North-West Frontier of Pakistan, less than 20 miles from the Afghan border. A little south-east was the Swat Valley that only a decade before had declared itself an independent Islamic republic run by a pro-Taliban cleric known as “Mullah Radio”. Yet the gathering we had come to see was unlike anything stereotypes of these conservative borderlands might lead you to expect.
For as we emerged from the woods and into a clearing, our hearts beating and lungs puffing from the altitude, we found ourselves stumbling into the middle of a moonlit mountaintop harvest festival. A sort of home-brew hooch — mulberry vodka — was being sipped by the village elders leaning on their sticks on the edge of the clearing. Next to them was a gaggle of drummers thumping away energetically on their dholaks, raising the tempo, minute by minute. Under the stars, bathed in the pale light of a full moon, were gathered some 200 or 300 dancers.
On a beaten mud platform in the centre of the clearing, threesomes of unveiled teenage girls, arms over each other’s shoulders, were turning pirouettes. They were wearing embroidered black dresses edged in cowrie shells and heavily hung with bead necklaces, their hair tied in tight braids. Shy gaggles of boys looked on and occasionally three would link arms and launch into the middle of the dance floor, too. Here they would turn backwards and forwards in a series of steps not unlike the Gay Gordons. They would then attach themselves to one of the group of these girls, the linking couple holding hands — a small act of public intimacy unthinkable anywhere else in this region.
The pale-skinned, blue-eyed Kalash people who preserve this dance, and the religion and cosmology that give it meaning, used to dominate all the valleys of Swat and Chitral, while their cousins across the border in Afghanistan carried these beliefs deep into Nuristan, the land that the epitaph of Mughal Emperor Babur dubbed the Light Garden of the Angel King.
It was these tribes who inspired Kipling’s most famous short story, The Man Who Would Be King, as well as the 1975 John Huston movie that was based on it: the tale of two British ne’er-do-well deserters, Daniel Dravot and Peachey Carnehan, who try to make their fortunes in the mountains beyond the North-West Frontier. Here, mistaken by the Kalash for the long-lost white gods of tribal myth, the pair briefly succeed in becoming the kings of Kafiristan. They rule the country until Dravot marries a Kafir girl who bites him during an amorous dispute. When he bleeds, Dravot is revealed as all too human, and he is quickly unmasked as a conman and killed. Only a maimed and wounded Carnehan escapes and returns to India to tell the tale.
In 1895, seven years after Kipling wrote his tale, the last Kafirs of Afghanistan were forcibly converted to Islam by Abdur Rahman Khan, Afghanistan’s “iron emir”. At the same time, in what became the northern territories of Pakistan, Wahhabi mullahs were encouraging their followers to enslave the infidel Kafir tribes and to seize their lands, their wives and their daughters. Driven ever deeper into the mountains, today the Kalash are found in only three remote valleys, none of which are linked to Chitral town by a metalled road.
Their isolation has kept them both intact and endogamous. They do not marry out, and within this last stronghold they faithfully preserve the complex web of stories, myths and beliefs that together preserve all that has been salvaged from arguably the most ancient of all south-Asian religions, one that may have already been old when the horse-riding nomads who composed the Rig Veda passed down the Swat Valley in the second millennium BC.
Last summer my children, tiring of the usual August diet of Mediterranean villas and Tuscan pools, demanded to go “somewhere more exciting”. Various ideas were canvassed, but in the end we all agreed on a trip into the Karakoram mountains of northern Pakistan, a place I had first visited and fallen in love with as a 21-year-old setting out to follow the route of Marco Polo.
We flew into Islamabad from the various corners of the globe into which the family had scattered — Britain, France, India and Tajikistan — and set off sleepily up the Grand Trunk Road in the pre-dawn glimmer of an early August morning. At sunrise we stopped for breakfast in a roadside dhaba at Attock and watched as the mighty Indus swept under the walls of Akbar’s magnificent fort. For much of south-Asian history, this fortress marked the boundary between Indian Hindustan to the south and Afghan central Asia to the north.
From there we corkscrewed up the switchbacks of the Malakand Pass, where the young Winston Churchill was ambushed and nearly killed by the jihadis of the “Mad Mullah” in 1896. At the top we entered the green and bucolic hillsides of the Swat Valley, where, as a young Delhi-based foreign correspondent in the late 1980s, I used to come with my wife Olivia every December in search of a peaceful white Christmas. It was a very different place now: memories of the Pakistan Taliban takeover were still fresh, and to follow the Swat River up towards Chitral we had to pass an endless gauntlet of police and army check-posts, each of which demanded to see our papers. There had been no recent incidents or incursions, but the hideouts of the Pakistan Taliban were supposed to be just over the Afghan border and the Pakistan Rangers who guard it were taking no chances.
On the plus side, it meant we had some of the most stunning mountain landscapes, and some of the world’s most intriguing archaeological remains, to ourselves. As we drove up the Swat River, we passed hilltop citadels that had been empty since they were stormed by the Macedonian catapults and moveable towers of Alexander the Great; extraordinary Gandharan Buddhist monasteries and their Hellenistic stupas; Hindu Shahi forts crumbling on the peaks, and intricately carved wooden Mughal mosques in the valleys below.
After the Chakdara Bridge, we entered Dir, the last bazaar town before the Lowari Pass. It was only here, as we sat sipping tea on a charpoy, that we took in the great diversity of racial types that the different invasions of the hills have left behind. The genes of many different races have met in these hills and intermingled. The passage of Genghis Khan and his Mongol hordes has elongated many eyes and turned to silky the normally thick beard of a Pashtun chin. In other places, bright Aryan-blue eyes flash beneath mountainous turbans, while we saw several households with blonde or ginger hair.
After Dir, well before the summit of the pass, we crossed the tree line and the landscape became bleaker and wilder: hard, barren, glacial country drained of colour, warmth and softness. The mountainsides were grey and sheer, covered with sharp mica schist; as we rose, the air grew thin and cool. But beyond the summit, framed by the snowpeaks of the Hindu Kush, lay the green and bucolic oasis valley of Chitral, its meadows and maize and wheat fields, and its apple and apricot and shinjoor orchards, all amply watered by the frothing snowmelt that debouches from the high Karakoram. At the end of the valley, on a bend in the river, rose the bastions of the Chitral fort, scenes of once-celebrated deeds of imperial derring-do at the peak of the Great Game.
No good roads connect the Kalash Valley to Chitral, and there are no hotels there, but an agency named Wild Frontiers arranged jeeps, a cook and a beautifully carved wooden village house for us to stay in the village of Rumbur. Here we sat under the shady trellising of a wooden balcony smelling of deodar wood, listening to the music of the rivulet running through beds of roses in the middle of our walled compound.
After lunch, we climbed to the top of the village to meet the village Qazi, from whom we hoped to learn something of the ancient religion of the Kalash. Fakr Azam was the chief priest of Rumbur, and had just succeeded his father in the position. As the Kalash have no written records, the Qazis are the oral repositories of millennia of Kalash songs, legends, stories, poems, customs and myths. His father, he said, was the most famous of the Kalash holy men and had known all the old legends. His death was like a library of Kalash lore going up in flames. The new Qazi still felt daunted by his responsibility: compared to his father, what did he know?
We sat on the balcony of his timber house, which clung like a swallow’s nest to the cliff face, just below the village’s mountain-top place of sacrifice, and looked over the narrow valley as the Qazi talked. Timber-framed houses tumbled down the cliffsides, and from every balcony rose plumes of smoke from cooking fires. Beyond the village, bifurcated by a mountain torrent, extended a patchwork of neatly tilled strip fields dotted with clumps of mulberry, apricot orchards, fig trees and terraced vineyards backing on to tiered drystone walls. Water mills straight out of a Bruegel canvas rose above a mill race; a small bazaar with three shops and a tailor huddled below the terraces. From the Qazi’s eyrie you could see women — all wearing black and orange robes topped with embroidered caps and hair in plaits — heading out into the fields.
For the Kalash, said the Qazi, this valley was alive with invisible protector gods and goddesses, demons and angels, spirits and sprites, fairies and djinns, good and bad. His job was to honour the forces of good — especially those who look after the village people and their animals, and to propitiate the bad, especially those who caused diseases — with offerings, libations and, on great festivals, to offer sacrifices of goats. The spirits made their presence felt in dreams and, more directly, by possessing the village beauties with whom they fell in love, which was why every pretty Kalash child is left with a dirty face, so as to avoid attracting unwanted spirit attention. He could sometimes see the spirits, he said, and also the newly dead, who appear at dusk like sparks around him. This was especially so the closer he got to the slopes of the snow peak of Tirich Mir, the Mount Olympus of Chitral, where the Kalash believe they go when they die, and where their spirits congregate.
The Qazi described the reverence his people felt for goats, for horses, for juniper bushes and holly wood, for mountaintops and for rivers, and, above all, for their ancestors. He talked of their two annual festivals: one, the day of the ancestors, marking the winter solstice, and the other — with which our visit had coincided — marking the grape harvest. He talked of their river god and sun god, but also said that all gods were just manifestations of a supreme creator god he called Khuda. He talked of initiation ceremonies and of the village mediums and shamans, and the skill his people claim in the interpretation of dreams. He talked about the design of Kalash face tattoos, and their epic songs, which relate the stories of the great Kalash warrior heroes, and of their creation myths that tell how God created the mountains to balance the earth.
The only thing, he said, of which the Kalash legends give no hint is their origins. Travellers here have, however, not been slow to speculate: some have imagined them to be the last survivors of the Aryan tribes who wrote the Rig Veda, and who gave up their nomadic ways to settle in these beautiful valleys. This theory has received some backing from the presence in the Kalash villages of graves containing horse bones dating from that time. Some of these bones contain marks of butchery, echoing Vedic descriptions of horse sacrifice. This theory has also received some backing from the fact that the language of the Kalash is an archaic form of Indo-Aryan, although some scholars maintain it seems to be so archaic it must predate the Sanskrit of the Vedas.
Others have suggested the Kalash might be Greek colonists who were exiled here by Darius or descendants of Alexander’s generals, while Russian visitors became convinced they were lost Slavic tribes who wandered south and got lost in the maze of the mountains. The Sunnis of Dir, more prosaically, told us the Kalash were just descendants of brigands who had taken refuge from justice in the mountains. The truth is, no one knows, but they clearly represent a different wave of migration from both the Pashtuns to the south and the Kho-speakers of the Chitral Valley.
Equally uncertain is their future. On our last afternoon in the Kalash Valley I sought out the headman, Saif Ullah, and asked him what he thought lay ahead for the last of his people. Saif Ullah was about 60, grave-faced and serious. He sat amid the carved wooded arcades of his courtyard and talked of reasons for hope. When he was a boy, he said, there were only 20 Kalash households; now, despite occasional conversions to Islam, there were 65. But things were difficult: the siren call of the modern world was pulling the young into the bazaars of Chitral and from there into the cities of the plains. “They come back wearing jeans and T-shirts and behaving like Punjabis. Some of our people worry about al-Qaeda and Isis, and fear that one day these people will come and convert us. But for me, it is the call of the outside world I fear most. It is a daily battle to preserve our culture. Will there still be Kalash here in 50 years? I really don’t know.”
William Dalrymple was a guest of Wild Frontiers, which offers small group tours and tailor-made holidays to Pakistan. A typical 16-day private tour, driving from Islamabad to Chitral, taking in the Kalash Valleys before continuing over the Shandur Pass to Hunza and Skardu, from where there is a flight back to Islamabad, costs from £2,685 per person excluding international flights. In Swat, Khaplu, Hunza and Skardu, William Dalrymple stayed as a guest of Serena Hotels (serenahotels.com; doubles from $150), a network of properties part-owned by the not-for-profit Aga Khan Foundation
Safety: both the British Foreign Office and the US Department of State advise against travelling to the areas mentioned. Wild Frontiers says it is confident the route is safe, and offers full insurance, but visitors should carefully check the latest situation to make an informed choice before travelling
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